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Jan 9, 2008 10:57 AM

Why do I need a bombilla to drink mate?

I'v been happily steeping my plebian yerba mate tea bags until I read that I'm all wrong. Seems I need a gourd, a bombilla, and mate that is a gazillion times better than my boxed stuff. Am I truly not enjoying it & not deriving any of its benefits? (I have noticed my appetite has lessened). Advice, please!

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  1. Well, South American snobbery aside, there is an essential difference in the taste and experience of mate from the bombilla [through a straw from a gourd, or – as the Argentines and Urugyanans I know simply refer to it – the mate] vs. mate cocido in the teabag. As for the “boxed” mate you refer to – I’m not really familiar. Mate cocido and yerba mate are the two forms of the tea I am most familiar with, and the following discussion pertains accordingly. By the way, the word as I know it is pronounced “MAH-tay.” Mate [that rhymes with rate] is what animals do to procreate.

    I myself, a gringo American married to an Argentine, am perfectly content and perfectly comfortable in my own skin drinking mate cocido. In fact, I am sipping away as I write this. However, this does not permit me to avoid the sneering, scoffing, sideway looks from what I have coined "indigenous mate drinkers." My own personal experience with the bombilla has never been all that great. First, my Argentine counterparts like to drink mate at near boiling temperature – something my lesser American wimpy mouth is not capable of doing. The grimace I made the first time I tried mate through the bombilla did not escape the amused notice of my argentine in-laws. Second, mate from the Bombilla, even with tons of sugar, is extremely strong and quite bitter and really is an acquired taste to the average American’s palette. I have since overcome my aversion to the bitterness and can even drink fairly strong mate cocido [think two teabags, which I think approximates the strength of mate through the bombilla]. Third, the straw and gourd thing is just plain foreign to many Americans. For those who don’t know, the loose leaf yerba mate is packed into the mate gourd; almost equal part sugar is added; scalding hot water poured over the concoction; and the drinker drinks through the metal straw with a filter on the end. There is something disconcerting [at least to me] about having to filter while one is drinking. Something about it seems so, ahem, primitive.

    The cocido thing to me is more about convenience and not having to explain to the uninitiated that this contraption is not a water bong. Also, the loose leaf product looks to the untrained eye strikingly similar to another more infamous herb [which may explain why many think the gourd is a bong]. So I can brew mate cocido from work and no one is the wiser. The argentines, however, are not so impressed. And there is an element to mate-through-the bombilla that has less to do with the strength of the brew and more with how it is enjoyed.

    If you hang around many South Americans or ever have the opportunity to travel there, you will note that in some places [Uruguay, as a prime example] the mate and bombilla is ubiquitous. People walk down the streets carrying a thermos and a mate. The same can be said for enclaves and hangouts for expats here in the States. The bombilla is a shared and uniquely South American experience [well, let me qualify that: mate and the bombilla are certainly enjoyed elsewhere, but are primarily of that particular region]. And if you watch indigenous mate drinkers, you will note that everyone drinks from the same bombilla. The mate is passed around the group and enjoyed over what are usually very passionate conversations. It is almost a pastime – like grilling meat and hollering at the football match on TV. Sharing a mate is a part of a common bond. The Italians have their espresso. The South Americans have their mate. And yet no one seems to be the slightest bit off-put by the fact that everyone is sharing the same straw! This seemed extremely odd to me at first, especially considering my own argentine folks are almost paranoid about cleanliness and germ avoidance in every other regard.

    The answer may lie in some of the accepted [if not necessarily scientifically proven] theories that the yerba [a perversion of the word hierba -- herb] in mate has benevolent and quasi-medicinal properties. You see, the argentines and uruguayos I know all think that drinking mate is the greatest thing for you next to breathing oxygen. They cite better defense against sickness, better circulation and a more alert and focused mental state – as some of the many supposed beneficial properties of this herb. For instance, my mother-in-law, who drinks mate regularly, has not had a cold or flu in ages. This has been attributed solely to the mate. To these supposed benefits, I myself cannot speak with any real authority. However, as you've already alluded to, drinking mate does suppress the appetite [some]. This is yet another popular notion that is widely accepted amongst the argentines I know. Brides-to-be and other dieters in Argentina are known to subsist on mate and cigarettes alone.

    But the main reason that I like mate over coffee or even other teas is the kick in the pants it packs. It seems to get me going as well as coffee does without making me feel all amped. Unlike other teas, there is something more potent about the caffeine in mate. My own experience is that a cup of mate makes me feel just slightly less caffeinated than a cup of coffee. Whereas black tea to me seems about the equivalent of a third or less.

    Per Wikipedia:

    “Researchers at Florida International University in Miami have found that yerba mate does contain caffeine, but some people seem to tolerate a mate drink better than coffee or tea. This is expected since mate contains different chemicals (other than caffeine) from tea or coffee.

    “From reports of personal experience with mate, its physiological effects are similar to (yet distinct from) more widespread caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, or guarana drinks. Users report a mental state of wakefulness, focus and alertness reminiscent of most stimulants, but often remark on mate's unique lack of the negative effects typically created by other such compounds, such as anxiety, diarrhea, "jitteriness", and heart palpitations. (The laxative effect of coffee derives from a substance that surrounds the raw bean, not the caffeine itself).”

    Being able to ingest caffeine without feeling cracked-out on coffee and without upsetting my stomach, is perhaps its greatest benefit. Also, I’ve noticed that, unlike coffee, I can drink mate even in the evening and have no difficulty going to sleep at night. Lastly, while examining the packaging the other day, they must have had to place a sticker on the product when importing it to the States, which included the nutritional information. I noticed that there was a ridiculous amount of potassium per serving. I’m no doctor [I just play one on TV], but perhaps that explains something.

    So yeah, you can pretty much get all of the same beneficial effects of drinking this panacea of a brew, even if you opt for the very un-indigenous method of brewing and ingesting it like any other tea. I doubt very seriously that it going through the straw vs. being steeped in a teabag would dispense with any of its beneficial properties. Of course, the mate through the straw is much stronger and you are obviously imbibing it at a faster rate. But again, I’m pretty sure you’re getting the same thing [albeit, somewhat diluted] with the teabag. Ask an argentine however, and you are likely to get a very strong opinion to the contrary. Whether psychosomatic or superstitious, you will not likely be changing their minds. Some may argue [rightly, in my opinion] that you are missing out on the cultural and communal aspect of the experience by drinking the cocido. Of course, unless you surround yourself with South Americans or other like-minded non-South Americans who happen to enjoy yerba mate via the bombilla, you probably aren’t missing out on much.

    Some final thoughts. The secret about this wonderful tea is slowly seeping out. You can get mate cocido at Trader Joes – albeit for an obscene price [I think I paid like $4.50 for 25 bags]. Mate is considerably less expensive than coffee – especially if you are one of those Starbucks triple-half-caf-mocha-iced-chocolate drinkers. Mate cocido is more expensive than loose leaf mate, but still a steal compared to coffee. For instance, for a measly 5 bucks I can get bag the size of a small backpack of the loose leaf mate. The last bag of mate I bought about 6 months ago is still at home nowhere close to half way finished. Of course, I mainly drink the cocido teabags, but even if you only used the loose leaf, this bag would last you for quite a while. Whereas with the teabags, you only get 50 freaking teabags for about 3 bucks and change. Either way, it is quite a bargain.

    The two brands I primarily consume are Cruz de Malta and Rosamonte. This may have more to do with these brands being the most prevalent at latin markets in my area than anything else. There are differing levels of quality [or so I’m told], but I am not refined enough to detect them and these brands work just fine for me. Lastly, as the secret of this great drink makes its way into everyday culture, people are doing some very un-indigenous things with it. There are already chai-mates [ooh, so catchy since it rhymes with chai-latte], which actually do get some reception in South America [I'm thinking with the hip young huckster types]. But now there are energy drinks that purport to contain mate and I’ve even seen a beer with mate in it [I guess the same idea as the alcohol/energy drink hybrid]. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that the more you mix mate with other elements [alcohol, the spices in chai, chemicals in energy drinks], you could very well be altering its chemical composition and therefore its beneficial properties. I for one am sticking with the already-passé-yet-somehow-newfangled teabag method. Salud, and spread the good word.

    6 Replies
    1. re: SouthOCHound

      SouthOC... That might be the longest CH post ever! Very informative.

      That's much more than I can contribute, other than to say it appears to me that the quality of the mate actually does correspond to price, at least in our experience (we run a coffeehouse that will do mate in a press pot, and employ one barista who owns a gourd, plus Argentinian customers who worked with us on "proper" strength). Where we shop, the Cruz de Malta is around $5.00 and the Rosamonte closer to $7.50. There are other varieties for under $5.00 and for as much as $22.00. Most we've spent is about $14.00. And it was better than the two other brands named.

      1. re: Panini Guy

        Yeah, I've only ever tried Rosamonte, Cruz de Malta, Taraguy, Guayaki [the Trader Joes brand], and the brand with the horse on it [the name escapes me]. Again, I can't really say that I was able to discern any difference quality wise -- but these were all mate cocido. With yerba mate, as I'm sure it is with any loose-leaf tea there will be differing levels of quality. I really have probably only had Cruz de Malta and Rosamonte in the loose-leaf [and whatever the argentines have passed around], so I can't really speak to quality-to-price differentials. I can see with my own eyes more stems and sticks than leaves in the Cruz de Malta I have at home, so I'm guessing that is one of the differences. Anyways, I think the presspot idea is an interesting one. I saw a place in Durango Colorado this summer that had loose-leaf mate, but it still seems like an obscure thing to the average american coffeehouse. I'm guessing that will change over time as it enters the mainstream and more people discover its beneficial properties. Thanks for your input

        1. re: Panini Guy

          "SouthOC____ That might be the longest CH post ever!

          Have you never read Uhockey restaurant reviews ? They fill two to three pages. l do drink my mate from a metal Argentinian cup and a bombilla just l like the entire process.

        2. re: SouthOCHound

          Many thanks for the comprehensive info! I feel better about enjoying my plain 'ol organic yerba mate, but your letter evokes my weakness for wanting to be as authentic as I can, (read x-country skis w/wax-my friends all glided away on their no-stick ones while I tried to melt the wax to the right temp! Or, making my own tempeh, many years ago, when it wasn't available. Had to get the inoculant from the FDA.) Ultimately, I'm sure I will succumb to the whole gourd/bombilla thing. Thanks again.

          1. re: passycafe

            @Passycafe, I'm coming up with nil on my search for a homemade tempeh recipe. Sounds like you've done it! Can you point me in the right direction?

        3. I didn't know there is real difference in the way it's served. I've recently tried yerba mate but not in the bombilla, in a regular to-go cup. We have a "Tea Lounge" in my neighborhood and they do serve it in the bombilla if you have it there. I didn't notice a decrease in appetite and was about to give up on yerba mate, because I thought it tasted awful. I've also had it with very little sugar. After this reading this, I will try it again, with sugar, and hopefully in the gourd (if I don't have to get it on the run). I'm still afraid to try the "mate latte" or the "gingerbread mate."

          1 Reply
          1. re: MrsT

            Yeah, the taste takes some growing accustomed to and certainly will not be for everyone. Then again, coffee is a pretty strong and bitter drink as well. They are the sort of thing you acquire a taste for over time. I used to drink a lot of commercially available regular tea and I recall the first time I tried mate thinking the taste was awful. Lots of sugar is one trick. I've also seen people add milk or cream.

          2. thanks for the post. have you ever tried or heard of a person cold-brewing the mate?

            3 Replies
            1. re: sir cooksalot

              Do you mean like iced tea? I know that some people drink it as an iced beverage, even in Argentina. But I'm not sure if it can be cold-brewed or if it must be steeped and then cooled with ice. One thing to note, though, when mate cools it darkens tremendously [like emerald green, almost black].

                1. re: kpaxonite

                  Cold Mate is possible. It ends up being a lot stronger, but it stores easier, if you don't have a large group of people that like Mate. In Argentina they generally drink Terere, which is made by cold steeping (pouring chilled liquid in, and waiting until it has been absorbed by the herb) a gourd or glass full of herb with a fruit juice, generally lemonade, then instead of water, you refill with ice cold lemonade. Many people mix in mint tea as well, which makes it taste like a virgin Mojito.

            2. I usually drink my mate in a regular mug with the little metal straw. I was brewing it in my french press for awhile and I liked it better when I found a straw left behind by an old roommate.

              I guess I would say drink it in the way it makes you happy.

              1. I drink mine out of a french press, as I've found that the mate that I can buy in Toronto doesn't work out so well out of a bombilla. It's so dry and powdery by the time it gets up here, the straw doesn't filter and I end up drinking a lot of leaves. Of courses I'm a long way from Argentina so YMMV.